Today’s reading: Sustainable ICT in higher education

Posted on January 27, 2009

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Peter James and Lisa Hopkinson have released their mammoth study on Sustainable ICT in Further and Higher Education

The report summarises a survey, a footprinting of University of Sheffield, several workshops, and a lot of literature.     Here’s my notes on the preamble through Chapter 1.

The topic of sustainable ICT – ie the economic, environmental and social impacts of information and communication technologies – is at the intersection of two trends that are having a profound effect on further and higher education:

The sector’s growing reliance on ICT, and 

The growing pressures for it to do more to mitigate the environmental and social impacts of its activities

Almost all respondents to a survey we conducted felt that it is important to make ICT more sustainable, and three quarters stated that it is very important.

The report wades through a lot of often conflicting research to summarise, for example:

ICT has a surprisingly heavy environmental footprint – a typical European office PC and monitor contains around 20kg of materials, and generates 66kg of waste and 1,096kg of CO2 during its lifetime.

 

The report is influenced by Madden and  Weißbrod’s  Connected – ICT and sustainable development (see earlier post)

If we develop and apply ICT badly, it could add to the world’s problems. It could devour energy and accelerate climate change, worsen inequality for those who do not have access and increase pollution and resource use by encouraging ever more frenetic consumerism. 

If we apply ICT well, the rewards could be enormous. It could help to enhance creativity and innovation to solve our problems, build communities, give more people access to goods and services and use precious resources much more efficiently.  – Madden and Weißbrod, 2008

They describe ICT and sustainablity as a “double edged sword”:

This ambiguity also applies within the context of further and higher education…ICT is already supporting more effective learning, research and administration; enabling greater access and a better student experience; and minimising energy consumption and environmental impacts. But other pages also demonstrate a pattern of growing ICT-related energy consumption, and some doubts about the value and/or effectiveness of a number of ICT applications.

 

Although there is a strong focus on reducing harm, James and Hopkinson give considerable space to maximising beneficial ICT applications:

The energy consumption of buildings can be greatly reduced by making them more intelligent. And ‘dematerialisation’ can substitute carbon-intense activities such as meetings, or teaching sessions involving travel, with low carbon equivalents, such as videoconferencing

The report places ICT in the context of higher education systems:

Sustainable IT is not achieved overnight, but requires long-term commitment and change. This in turn requires its embedding into activities and systems, both within IT departments and in other areas of the institution. 

and begins to examine the drivers for this (there’s lots more in chapter 2)

The topic of sustainable ICT – ie the economic, environmental and social impacts of information and communication technologies – is at the intersection of two trends that are having a profound effect on further and higher education:

The sector’s growing reliance on ICT, and

The growing pressures for it to do more to mitigate the environmental and social impacts of its activities

Sustainability is given context (note, including avoiding disbenefits)

As with society generally, universities and colleges are also under pressure to make a greater contribution to sustainable development. This includes mitigating environmental impacts through: 

minimising their energy consumption

Minimising the travel undertaken by staff and students in connection with their work and study

Minimising their carbon footprint, in the previous, and in other, ways

Maximising the biodiversity of campuses, and

Minimising generation of waste, and maximising recycling and reuse

It also involves creating social benefits (and avoiding ‘disbenefits’) through such means as:

Assisting social inclusion through increasing access to education amongst disadvantaged groups

Supporting local communities

Helping to improve living conditions and access to opportunities in developing countries, and

Ensuring health and safety, and privacy, for staff and students

 

They have a wide take on these disbenefits:

Some ICT applications also have a potential ‘social overhead’ (Anderson, Brynin, Raban & Gershuny, 2006). They can potentially support a ‘surveillance society’, which erodes or compromises privacy (Crainer, 2008) and/or an atomised social world in which meaningful human interaction is replaced with less satisfying or inclusive virtual relationships (Wilsden, 2001). Within education, they could create or exacerbate divisions between students because of differing levels of use (see Chapter 4 for more discussion of this).

 

They make a useful distinction:

The primary effects of devices and networks – the environmental and social impacts associated with the production, use and disposal of ICT equipment.  

The secondary effects of user applications – the way in which devices, and the software they run,  support everyday educational activities such as learning, research, management, travel and student life, and

The tertiary effects of the adaption of economic and social life to user applications (often termed the systemic effects) (European  Telecommunications Network Operators Association and World Wide Fund for Nature, 2006; Hilty, 2008; Madden and Weißbrod, 2008).

The chapter concludes

It is clear that ICT within further and higher education has a very considerable environmental and social footprint, which is usually underestimated. Few people realise that many of the gleaming devices on their desktop, or in specialist facilities, are effectively coal-fired, with all the wastage and pollution that implies.

 

I’m a little confused as to the brief of the report.  They state that the focus is on the environmental aspects of sustainability” and it is,   e-learning is considered in terms of environmental aspect.   In some sections, there is a tantalising glimpse of the integration of sustainability into ICT learning itself but, skimming through the rest, I can’t find any flesh on this. 

And, in the long term, the biggest impact of universities and colleges with regard to sustainable development will be through the influence of their teaching, research and third-mission activities on students and society as a whole. If ICT enables this to happen more effectively, it will be an enormous contribution to a more sustainable world.

and

ICT accounts for around 6% of world GDP, and is therefore a major source of graduate employment and research funding – which will increasingly reflect the industry’s growing emphasis on sustainability issues.

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